Losing the Left Tackle Is Like Losing the Quarterback (Sort of)

Losing the Left Tackle Is Like Losing the Quarterback (Sort of)
November 8, 2012, 7:27 am
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When we suggested yesterday that the sorry state of the Eagles' offensive line wasn't on Andy Reid, a handful of folks still felt a few key injuries are no excuse. Had the front office only drafted better, they wouldn't be in this mess, right?

The problem with that theory is unless Reid was planning to use a first-round pick on a backup left tackle, chances are he would have a hard time finding an adequate substitution for the fallen Jason Peters.

I tried merely making the point that quality left tackles don't grow on trees by citing there is always a premium on the position come draft day. Perhaps had I specified where the overwhelming majority of the NFL's left tackles are taken, that would better illustrate the point. Here goes.

Of the 32 players who are their club's regular starter at left tackle, 10 were chosen within the top nine picks overall, while 19 overall -- more than half -- were selected in the first round. Another seven are from rounds two or three, bringing the grand total to 26.

Over 80% of the league's starting left tackles were tagged in rounds one through three. In other words, the chances of a player taken later actually panning out as a left tackle are slim. And when Peters is under contract, in his prime, why would the organization use one of their cherished early picks there rather than at a position of need?

The numbers are actually very similar to another important position: quarterback. 23 of the NFL's 32 starting signal were taken in round one, including a whopping 15 within the top 10 picks. Between rounds one and three, that number grows to 28, just two more than at left tackle.

As we've mentioned in the past, history tells us when a quarterback goes down with a season-ending injury, his team is usually screwed. Since playoff expansion, only Jeff Hostetler, Kurt Warner, and Tom Brady have relieved injured teammates on their way to winning a Super Bowl -- and two of them are headed to the Hall of Fame.

We can't be certain the same is true for any offensive linemen, but we can at least confirm the position is nearly as difficult to fill. Simply put, there isn't a lot of left tackle talent in the NFL outside the first round, therefore if a team has an injury there, they almost inevitably will wind up with a King Dunlap type filling in.

Can the offensive line woes be blamed entirely on the loss of Peters? No, but probably more than you might imagine.

Peters needed little help in pass protection, so the Eagles could send extra blockers to the right side. Not surprisingly, Todd Herremans appeared to take a step back this year when that assistance was shared at the other end. Peters was also by far and away their most athletic and physically imposing blocker in front of LeSean McCoy on runs and screens, making the back's down year easy to predict.

Then the Eagles sustain an injury at center two weeks into the season, and suddenly Reid is trying to fill holes at two highly specialized positions. Only four centers were drafted at all in 2012, and only one after round four, so finding quality depth is not as simple as you might think.

But left tackle in particular is a difficult position to carry depth, because left tackle depth doesn't really exist in the NFL. If a player was going to be an even remotely decent left tackle, he's probably gone by rounds two or three in the draft, typically much earlier. One lineman was projected to start at left tackle immediately in this year's draft, and Matt Kalil went fourth overall to Minnesota.

The fact is, the left tackle position is like the quarterback position in that it's very difficult to replace, and only the top-tier level of talent consistently rises to the top. Obviously first rounders have a higher rate of success in general, but you can find decent contributors at other positions later on with far greater frequency.

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